For the past few weeks I have been consumed writing a book on Bible difficulties. By “Bible difficulties” I mean the tough passages in scripture that critics (usually atheists) use to try and prove that the Bible is not the inspired Word of God. They say these verses show the Bible is instead a mere collection of fables that were penned by “Bronze Age goat-herders.”
The typical objections include arguments that the Bible condones slavery and genocide, that the God of the Old Testament is cruel and wrathful, and that the Bible is full of passages and teachings that contradict one another. One website even boasts that there are 1001 contradictions in the Bible!
Help That’s Not Always Helpful
As far as I know, there is no Catholic book that addresses these issues. The only ones that have been widely published are from conservative Protestants, the two most famous examples being Gleason Archer’s The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties (also called When Critics Ask).
While these books do have many helpful answers, I’m always hesitant to recommend them to Catholics because they contradict Catholic doctrine in several places. For example, in Geisler and Howe’s book on the subject they argue against both the idea that Mary was ever virgin and that the Church was built on Peter (346-347) as well as the belief that the Eucharist is really Christ’s body and blood (412-413). But something that caught my eye recently was Geisler and Howe’s treatment of alcohol, or what they call, “strong drink.”
The issue comes up when the duo tries to answer the following objection,
“Does the Bible contradict itself on alcohol? In some passages it says it is okay to drink alcohol but other passages say it is not okay.”
Geisler and Howe’s solution is blunt, “It is clear that the scriptures condemn the use of strong drink,” (122) which they interpret to mean any alcoholic beverage.
Are Geisler and Howe correct that scripture issues a blanket condemnation of alcohol? No, and here’s why.
Examining the Arguments
Geisler and Howe begin by saying,
“Leviticus 10:8 forbids the priest from drinking wine or strong drink when he is supposed to minister in the tent of meeting. Also, Proverbs forbids the use of wine or strong drink by kings or rulers, lest they pervert justice. Further, many passages warn of the deceitfulness of strong drink (Prov. 20:1) and condemn the use of it in general.”
Most people aren’t allowed to drink on the job, be they priests, kings, or modern day accountants and plumbers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy alcoholic refreshments when we aren’t at work. In addition, Geisler and Howe use passages that only condemn drunkenness in order to support their conclusion that scripture condemns the use of alcohol in general. They write,
The Bible is opposed to both strong drink and drunkenness (1 Cor. 6:9- 10 ; Eph. 5:18 ). It pronounces woes on those who drink either strong drink or who drink in excess (Isa. 5:11 ; Amos 6:1, 6 ; Micah 2:11 ). Christian leaders are urged to be temperate ( 1 Tim. 3:3 , 8 ). All are warned that too much alcohol is abhored by God (Amos 6:1-8 ). And although moderate amounts were recommended for medicinal purposes (1 Tim. 5:23 ), nowhere does the Bible commend strong drink as a beverage. The only reference to taking “strong drink” is as a painkiller in extreme circumstances: “Give strong drink to him who is perishing” (Prov. 31:6).
This approach to exegesis reminds me of what the evangelical scholar D.A. Carson once said, “A proof text without context is a pretext.” These verses simply don’t support Geisler and Howe’s conclusion and only serve to overwhelm an opponent who isn’t willing to look at what each passage actually says. So what do they say?
The Old Testament
Amos 6 only condemns celebrating without mourning for Israel’s sins and its impending judgment. This same verse also condemns “anointing our faces with oil” which surely Geisler and Howe do not object to. Likewise, Micah 2:11 refers to the people rejecting the prophets and listening instead to people who will tell them whatever they want to hear, provided they are willing to pay these false prophets with alcohol. The passage makes no reference to the general use of alcohol.
Isaiah 5:11 only condemns people who “chase strong drink” and let it “inflame them,” not casual drinking. In the previous eleven verses God even compares Israel to an unfruitful vineyard, which implies that Israel was as bad as a field of grapes incapable of making fruit to be used for wine, the stuff God is supposed to be against!
When it comes to “strong drink” or in Hebrew “shekar,” Geisler and Howe are wrong about it only being used in emergency situations. Deuteronomy 14:26 says in regards to certain tithing allocations, “spend the money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves; and you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”
Geisler and Howe try to get around this passage by saying that this alcohol would have been diluted and so there would have been no worry about becoming drunk. They write,
It was a common practice to dilute the strong drink (i.e., normally fermented grape juice) with about three parts water to one part wine. In this weaker form, imbibed with meals in moderation, there was no fear of excess. It is only in this sense that “wine” was permitted in the Scriptures and then only in a culture that was not alcoholic. While moderate drinking of this diluted wine may be permissible, in a culture shot through with alcoholism (such as ours), it is not profitable.
But if the culture of the Bible were not an “alcoholic one,” then why are there dozens of passages in the Bible that warn people about drunkeness?
Now, it’s true that wine was mixed with water in order to make it weaker, but the resulting wine was still alcoholic. For example, the Roman author Pliny the Elder described how you could set Falernian wine on fire, which means it contained at least 30% alcohol (Pliny, Natural History, 14.8). Even if you diluted such a drink with three parts water it would still be more alcoholic than most beers.
The Old Testament rightfully teaches that “wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler” (Proverbs 20:1) when it is consumed in too high of quantities. But God was happy to have his people consume both wine and strong drink in moderate amounts in order to “rejoice before the Lord” (Deuteronomy 14:26).
The New Testament
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says methysoi, or drunkards, will not inherit the kingdom of God. It does not say that those who merely drink alcohol will not inherit the kingdom of God. This parallels what Paul said in Galatians 5:21 about methai and komoi, or drunkards and “carousers,” not inheriting the kingdom of God.[i]
Likewise Ephesians 5:18 isn’t opposed to “strong drink,” but drunkenness. It says, “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery. Instead be filled with the spirit.” If Paul had wanted to condemn merely drinking wine, then he would have used the Greek word pino, which means “to drink.” Instead, he uses the word methyskesthe, which is a form of the verb methusko and means, “to get drunk.”
In regards to the pastoral letters, Geisler and Howe transform Paul’s advice to Timothy that he drink wine if he has an upset tummy (1 Timothy 5:23) into the idea that wine should only be used “for medicinal reasons.” They also interpret 1 Timothy 3:3-8’s exhortations for bishops to not be “drunkards” and deacons to “not [be] addicted to much wine" to mean Christian leaders should be “temperate” or abstain from alcohol completely. But this mistaken interpretation abuses the texts so much that I almost want to call protective services.
And of course, Geisler and Howe completely skip over Jesus’ miracle at Cana where he changed water into wine, which would be absurd if drinking wine were a sin. As we’ve seen, it’s fruitless (no pun intended) to argue that this “wine” was just grape juice. The steward at the feast even explicitly comments that the wine Jesus made was the “good wine” which should have been served first (John 2:10). That's because the guests were now too inebriated from the inferior wine to notice how good Jesus' wine was.
Finally, Geisler and Howe make a last ditch effort to condemn alcohol by citing Romans 14:21. They write,
“In view of all these factors, it is best to conclude with the Apostle Paul, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21).”
But Paul was talking about causing someone to stumble into idolatry, not alcoholism. I agree we shouldn’t pressure someone to drink or put him in a position where he will drink more than he can handle, but this use of scripture to justify mandatory and complete abstinence from alcohol is simply unfounded. Geisler and Howe should take heed of the latter part of the advice Paul gave in Romans 14:3, “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.”
A Final Note
I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse drunkenness or excessive love of alcohol. In fact, I don’t particularly like drinking alcohol, and I have no problem with those who choose not to drink. But I can’t condone scripture being used to justify “traditions of men.” This includes the tradition among some Protestants that Christians must abstain from alcohol, a position that even Calvin and Luther would have found to be strange and unbiblical.
In conclusion, a thorough examination of the Bible shows that the following observation by Hilaire Belloc about Catholic culture is one that is not opposed to the scriptural record:
“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
[i] Strong’s Concordance defines komoi as those who partake in a, “drunken feast which hosted unbridled sexual immorality.”